Welcome to the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey project!
When I first started teaching fairy tales at the university level, I noticed that certain tales had a similar underlying structure. They were all tales about heroines, from childhood to marriage, and in those tales the heroines went through a series of life stages: they received gifts, they were required to leave home or lost their homes in some way, they wandered through dark forests, they found temporary homes where they could stay for a while, they encountered friends and helpers along their journey . . . What struck me at the time was the similarity of these stages. They did not occur in the same way or the same order in very tale, but there they were, as though the tale-tellers had been working with a similar set of plot elements and motifs. And then I started noticing some of those stages in my own life, and the lives of my female friends.
Because I am a writer and scholar, as well as inveterately curious, I decided to research this journey in more detail. I found a set of tales that I believe fit a pattern I call the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey, tales such as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast” . . . Some of our most popular fairy tales, often retold and made into film versions. On this website, you will see part of the journey I went on, researching these tales. First I wrote an article for Faerie Magazine; then I gave a paper on my ideas at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Both that article and paper are linked to here. The next stage of the project is conducting further research, which I will post here as well. Eventually, I hope to turn these ideas into a book, but for now, I will be adding my ideas and analysis to this site, which will be an ongoing project.
Let me tell you my theory about the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey: both what it is, and what it’s not.
I believe that many of our most popular fairy tales focusing on a central female character share an underlying structure that we can identify as a Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. That journey has a number of stages, which I list below. They describe a woman’s life from birth to marriage. Why do these tales share a similar structure? Because they are a fantastical representation of the actual stages of women’s lives at the times and in the cultures when the fairy tales were told and eventually written down. In other words, this is not a universal “heroine’s journey” — I do not believe in universal journeys or story structures. It is a very specific journey coming out of specific cultures and times. Nor is it the only journey for a fairytale heroine — there are other models of female development, other fairy tales focused on central female characters that do not fit this pattern. Why, then, is this Fairytale Heroine’s Journey important? Because this particular pattern, told over and over again in our most popular fairy tales, has become the model of female development in our own culture. It has shaped women’s expectations and experiences. We learned it not only from the fairy tales we read and the films we watched as children, but from Jane Eyre and its legacy of romantic heroines — who may start out as Cinderellas and encounter Beasts to tame, unaware that they have entered Bluebeard’s castle.
It is not the only story we can tell, but it has been presented as the story of women’s lives. It is also, for writers, a story we retell over and over again, even when we’re not trying to. So whether we follow its alluring pull or rebel against it, it’s worthwhile understanding this particular story about fairytale heroines — and the women who grew up reading about their journeys.
Researching and developing my ideas about the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey has itself been a journey! The first stage, after I had started noticing the structural similarities between a number of fairy tales about women’s lives, was to write an article on the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey for Faerie Magazine. You can find that article here:
The next stage was to present a paper at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, so I could test my theories and arguments in front of an audience of scholars. You can find that paper here, along with a set of relevant quotations I handed out at the conference:
Here are the stages of the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey, with further explanations of how those stages appear in the tales:
1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine meets friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.
Here are the tales that contain a Fairytale Heroine’s Journey, with explanations of how they reflect and incorporate that journey:
This page is a work in progress, and there is more to come! Thank you for joining me on my own journey in pursuit of the Fairytale Heroine . . .
(The image above is is The Fairy Woods by Henry Meynell Rheam.)